From the first glimpse of the $103 million Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City, the metaphor is unambiguous: The 163,000-square-foot building is both literally and figuratively rooted in the landscape. The terraced structure is anchored into its sloping site at the edge of the University of Utah campus, a few miles from downtown, while the folded and subtly canted exterior walls mimic the scrubby hillside rising behind it. But even though the references to its environment are readily recognizable, the museum holds its own as man-made object against the rugged backdrop. It is an interpretation and abstraction of nature rather than a facsimile, explains Todd Schliemann, partner at New York–based Ennead Achitects (formerly Polshek Partnership), which designed the building in association with local firm, GSBS.
The museum, which opened in November, moved from a decaying, Depression-era building in the heart of the campus to its current 17-acre site—one that appears to be the threshold of unspoiled wilderness. But although the land had never been developed for a building, it was not pristine. In the early 1900s, it had been marred when soldiers from nearby Fort Douglas used it as a firing range. More recently, major utility lines were routed through the property, along with a trailhead for a mountain-biking and hiking path.